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Long Island reps seek $47M in revived version of once-banned earmarks

The community project funding proposals include a request

The community project funding proposals include a request for the Village of Northport to receive $1 million for dredging Northport Harbor, seen here in 2019. Credit: Newsday/John Keating

WASHINGTON — Earmarks are back, but they have been cleaned up, limited in number and renamed "community project funding" requests — and Long Island’s four U.S. representatives recently have submitted 28 proposals with a total price tag of $47.4 million, according to data reviewed by Newsday.

That’s a far cry from what the five-member Long Island delegation asked for a decade ago: 393 projects costing nearly $1 billion in 2010 spending for local public agencies, nonprofits and even defense contractors.

But that was before congressional leaders banned earmarks in 2011 after a series of scandals and questionable projects such as the "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.

Now, the newly revived and renamed earmarks represent a return to giving members of Congress greater sway over at least a sliver of federal money in their congressional districts — 1% of fiscal year 2022 discretionary federal spending, likely about $14 billion.

What to know

  • The House has revived a smaller version of the earmarks program, now renamed “community project funding” requests.
  • Congressional leaders had banned earmarks in 2011 after a series of scandals and questionable projects.
  • LI representatives have requested $47.4 million for 28 projects under the new program.

"I like the idea that members of Congress, including myself, have some influence over how the federal government is spending money," Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) told Newsday. "We know what's going on in our communities better than some bureaucrats in Washington."

While all but one of the 218 House Democrats submitted project requests, less than half of the 212 House Republicans did. Senate Republicans say the earmark ban was permanent but have indicated wiggle room, and Democrats are eager but haven’t restored them.

The new version of earmarks also potentially has the upside of encouraging the now-polarized Congress to work in a bipartisan way to compromise on home-district spending projects, according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Given past scandals and the negative image of earmarks, the House sought to sanitize them: It limited members to 10 requests each, requires the proposals to be posted publicly on their websites and must declare they and their families have no financial interest in the projects.

On Long Island, Republican Reps. Lee Zeldin of Shirley and Andrew Garbarino of Bayport and Democrats Suozzi and Rep. Kathleen Rice of Garden City submitted requests for funding for projects before the end-of-April deadline.

It was the first time any of them had a chance to request funding for specific proposals for their districts or Long Island because all of them won their seats after earmarks had been banned. They all noted that they have been told that only a handful of the projects will get funded.

The Long Island lawmakers used various methods to determine which projects to submit, but all reviewed submissions from local groups and governments, tested local support for the proposals and weighed the likelihood of them receiving funding, according to their aides.

Zeldin, who is running for governor, did not favor bringing back earmarks but stood out as the biggest requester of the four Long Island lawmakers by asking for $25.3 million for four major infrastructure projects, according to his posted requests.

They include extending clean drinking water access to the towns of Riverhead and Brookhaven, expanding a Patchogue sewage facility and reconstructing Bellport’s waterfront still damaged from Superstorm Sandy.

"Congressman Zeldin has a duty to fight for the maximum support possible for his district," said his spokeswoman Katie Vincentz in a statement. She added that he might submit additional proposals later this month for military and veterans projects.

In contrast, Garbarino, in his first term in Congress, submitted the most modest requests of the delegation: $1.8 million for four projects — homeless outreach, Alzheimer's disease care, water infrastructure improvement in the Town of Babylon and sewer extension in Islip.

Garbarino hopes his handful of projects win funding and hopes to receive more submissions for projects next year, according to his press secretary Kristen Cianci.

Rice submitted the maximum of 10 proposals at total cost of about $7.6 million. She asked for funding for a Uniondale streetscape improvement, a Hempstead sewage plant upgrade, an early childhood learning center, an LGBTQ program and other social services.

Rice believes the projects she selected for the needs of her district will solve problems and create jobs, said her press secretary Stuart Malec.

Suozzi also submitted the maximum number of proposals, with a total tab or about $12.7 million. His proposals include money for a geriatric center for Northwell Health in New Hyde Park and for construction of a police training village in Nassau County.

He also asked for funding for upgrading the Nancy Court Pump Station in his hometown of Glen Cove, the dredging of Northport Harbor, renovation of North Hempstead Beach Park, two workforce training programs, a community center roof and the seeding of 10 million clams in bays along the North Shore.

House Democratic leaders promise a fair process, but critics already have complained about the level of transparency and the lack of a central public database of the requests.

"Why do we have to look at hundreds of lawmakers' websites? All of this earmark request data goes into a central database. Why not make that public if you want to be transparent?" said Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan federal budget watchdog.

But Ellis, a longtime critic of earmarks in the past, predicted that Democrats leaders will try to avoid scandal or inappropriate projects, with more than half the Republican conference waiting to pounce on any mistakes.

"For at least the first year and probably the first two years, they're really going to be minding their p's and q's," Ellis said. "They're really going to make sure that projects are on the up and up, that they are of a high-level quality, because they know they don't have a lot of room for error."

And Democratic leaders must decide how to divide the money between members of the two parties — again making sure they don’t turn it into a political talking point by shorting Republican requests.

In the end, nearly every member of the House who submitted a request for funding is prepared for disappointment. If history is a guide, they should be.

Of the Long Island delegation’s request for 393 earmarks totaling near $1 billion a decade ago, House appropriators awarded them the big prize of $267 million for the East Side Access projects — and then $65 million for 96 projects.

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